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Weapons of Mass Destruction

by Michael Heylin
October 11, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 41

We hear a lot about weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) these days. Last year, the U.S. launched a preemptive war against a nation it perceived as possessing one type of WMD and aspiring to acquire others.

Just what is a weapon of mass destruction? If the phrase meant what its component words mean, it would presumably be any weapon capable of inflicting a lot of damage and/or killing a lot of people.

This definition, however, would be of little value. Every weapon known to man, under certain circumstances, can kill a lot of people. Military small arms and nonnuclear ordnance would obviously qualify, as would the car bomb, the truck bomb, the suicide bomber, and--in light of what happened in Rwanda in 1994--the machete.

If the term WMD is to have value in defense policy-making in today's perilous world of terrorism and nuclear weapons proliferation, it should best be limited to weapons capable of deliberate, indiscriminate, and instant slaughter on a scale vastly greater than that achievable with other weapons.

By this criterion, there is only one WMD. It is the nuclear weapon. Yet, today, nuclear weapons are seen as just one of three WMDs, the others being chemical weapons and biological weapons.

However, chemical weapons do not meet the mass destruction standard. They are not significantly more effective and reliable in large-scale killing than are conventional high-explosive bombs and shells.

To date, the biological weapon is a virtual, not real, WMD. Intense and prolonged R&D efforts by many of the world's major powers during the 20th century did not produce a usable weapon, let alone one with WMD capability. There is little reason to believe that a terrorist group will be able to make it into a usable weapon.

This is not to say that threats posed by chemical and biological weapons should not continue to be taken very seriously.

Even if chemical weapons can't kill on the scale of nuclear weapons, they are still deadly, as witnessed by their use in the 1980­88 Iran-Iraq War and the 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo subway. Similarly, the 2001 anthrax incidents in the U.S. were disruptive and deadly, if at very far below the WMD level. And unlikely scenarios, such as the deliberate instigation of a smallpox pandemic, can never be dismissed.

However, it does not help either attempts to address threats from chemical and biological weapons or efforts to contain the proliferation of nuclear weapons to place these three very different weapons systems in a single, special category.

So, why this arbitrary grouping?

I note it is in step with the reasoning behind evolving U.S. defense policy, especially since Sept. 11, 2001. To wit:

  • • That the foundation of national security consists of having overwhelming military power that is able to locate, identify, engage, and destroy any target, anywhere in the world, within minutes.

  • • That nuclear weapons will always be the cornerstone of such power and that the U.S. must remain free to enhance, refine, and use its nuclear arsenal as it sees fit.

  • • That such power will intimidate, deter, or neutralize all enemies.

This is where the WMD construct comes in. By implication, it extends possible targets for preemptive, even nuclear, attack by the U.S. to include perceived hostile nations that are judged either to possess such weapons or to desire to do so.


This policy moves away from the arms-control approach to containing nuclear weapons, which is anchored in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This pact allows the five nations--the U.S., the U.K., the former Soviet Union, France, and China--that had nuclear weapons when it entered into force in 1970 to keep them. But it commits these nations to not threatening nonnuclear states with these weapons and to working to eliminate their nuclear arsenals. Nonnuclear states are committed to not seeking nuclear weapons.

This treaty-based approach has been successful to the extent that nuclear weapons have not been used in anger since 1945. But the approach has become increasingly shaky over the years. None of the nuclear powers have eliminated their arsenals. Three more nations--Israel, India, and Pakistan--have joined the nuclear ranks, and North Korea may well have, too. And now comes an upsurge in worldwide terrorism using suicide tactics and bent on maximum mayhem.

I will leave analysis of the connections between and among these factors to others. For instance, does a more aggressive U.S. security policy deter other nations from acquiring WMDs or spur them to do so? Will the U.S.'s shift away from nonproliferation to counterproliferation contribute to greater or lesser worldwide security in the long run?

But I will make three observations:

  • • Nuclear weapons are of little or no discernible use against stateless terror.

  • • Nuclear weapons are proliferating and becoming increasingly accessible. Pakistani and North Korean weapon makers have already had nuclear-weapons-related technology and components on the world market.

  • • And, ironically, the ultimate horror scenario is nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists.


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